Two Whole Foods grocery store employees in Albuquerque were recently suspended after getting in a dispute with their manager over speaking Spanish in the workplace.
That incident raises an employment law question that leaves many Arizona employers scratching their heads: Can employers require their employees to only speak English in the workplace?
The answer to that question, like the gray area that surrounds many legal questions, is “it depends.”
“While there is no specific law that requires a specific language in the workplace, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Arizona Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination based upon national origin and language is closely tied to national origin,” said Stephanie Quincy, a partner with Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Phoenix. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces Title VII and the Arizona Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office enforces the Arizona Civil Rights Act. Both agencies are very concerned that employers will enact language requirements not because of business necessity, but as a way of excluding certain nationalities from the workplace. The Phoenix office of the EEOC sued a restaurant located on the Navajo Nation for enacting an English-only policy, resulting in years of protracted litigation for the employer.”
That restaurant is not alone. The EEOC recently released figures on what kinds of employment discrimination cases are being brought to the agency and complaints of discrimination based on national origin, including those involving perceived problems with language ability or accent, have increased 77 percent since 1997. The EEOC has suggested that it might be the increasing diversity of the American workforce, but civil rights advocates think it’s more likely due to a climate of fear, particularly in states like Arizona that have been enacting laws hostile to immigrants, both legal and undocumented.
“Generally speaking, English-only rules are not in and of themselves unlawful,” said John Balitis, a director at Fennemore Craig who practices in the labor and employment area. “They are permissible when needed to promote the safe and efficient operation of the employer’s business.”
According to Joseph T. Clees, shareholder, and Alexandra J. Gill, associate, of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, there are some circumstances where an English-only rule may be necessary to further a safety, efficiency or other legitimate business concern. The EEOC has provided examples of such circumstances including, communication with customers, employees or supervisors who only speak English; emergency situations; cooperative work assignments where the English-only rule is necessary for efficiency purposes; and to assist supervisors with monitoring of performance.
“This is an extremely high standard and very difficult to meet,” Quincy said. “Furthermore, some of these categories would only permit an English-only rule where the business necessity is present and would not support a rule completely prohibiting non-English languages completely.”
This is where that gray area comes into play when it comes to language in the workplace, experts said.
“If the employer cannot demonstrate that (speaking English) is a ‘business necessity,’ it cannot justify such a rule and could be subject to legal action by any employee who is affected by the policy,” Quincy said. “A policy does not have to be a formal written policy. A rogue supervisor can create a policy by simply telling employees speaking Spanish to quit doing so. Such a policy can almost never be supported when enforced on employee breaks or when employees are having non-work related discussions.”
Because the EEOC has taken the position that English-only policies can violate Title VII, Clees and Gill said employers adopting these policies can face a range of penalties under Title VII if the policy is found to be discriminatory.
“An individual alleging a violation of Title VII may seek to recover damages including back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees,” they said. “Individuals may also request injunctive relief.”
Because of the potential backplash, Clees said employers should carefully analyze their reasoning for instituting an English-only policy prior to doing so.
“Employers should consider whether the policy has important safety justifications and/or business justifications, and whether instituting the policy would be effective in advancing the desired business purpose,” he said. “Employers should also consider whether there are any alternatives to an English-only policy that would accomplish the same goals. If an employer decides to an English-only policy is necessary, it should ensure that employees are clearly informed of the policy, including when and where it applies.”
While there is no precise test for weighing or evaluating the business reasons for a language policy in the workplace, Quincy said the EEOC suggests considering:
· Evidence of safety justifications for the rule.
· Evidence of other business justifications for the rule, such as supervision or effective communication with customers.
· Likely effectiveness of the rule in carrying out obectives.
· English proficiency of workers affected by the rule.
“Employers should only (implemented policies that either completely or partially prohibit the use of any language other than English) if they can articulate a business necessity for such policies,” said Charitie L. Hartsig, an associate at Ryley Carlock & Applewhite. “They should also clearly inform employees of the circumstances under which they will be required to speak only English and the consequences of violating the policy. Limited English-only policies have been allowed under Title VII where the policies are in place to ensure clear communications regarding the performance of dangerous and safety-sensitive tasks. The EEOC presumes that an employer that completely prohibits employees from speaking their native language disadvantages the employee’s employment opportunities on the basis of national origin under Title VII. However, the Ninth Circuit rejected the EEOC’s per se rule. Nevertheless, Arizona employers should be cautious about implementing English-only policies and do so only when there is a business necessity for doing so.”
Despite an employer’s best business intentions, experts said instituting a language policy in the workplace is most likely a powderkeg ready to explode.
“The EEOC presumes that English-only rules applied at all times are discriminatory,” Balitis said. “Because the EEOC looks with disfavor on English-only rules, an employer may be forced to litigate even the most carefully crafted rule.”